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In Japan, Expats Divide on Whether to Stay

Author: David S. Abraham, International Affairs Fellow in Japan, Sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. 2010-2011
March 28, 2011


The disasters that devastated Japan this month quickly revealed a resilient and cohesive society coming together. People most affected waited patiently in line for small amounts of food, shopkeepers sold their last rice balls at discount prices, and ski resorts handed out clothes to those in needs.

Tokyo's expatriate community has shown less unity; many are leaving the city or country for safer ground. But while the traumas inflicted on the nation may bring the country closer, they are pulling at the expat community.

Expats are a quirky lot. I know, I am one, having lived in Japan for two years and, before that, over two years in Lithuania. Here in Japan, they are bankers, computer programmers and English teachers. They are a mix of bravado, uncertainty, and opportunism, trying to find something abroad they could not find at home -- money, adventure, love, or acceptance. Many are just short-timers, here for the job or an experience, destined to return home or to another foreign posting. Some truly begin to adopt Japan, learning the language and finding ways to stay for the long-term.

All have stories. The teacher who became a translator; the computer geek who became an IT technician; or the banker who married local and now owns a bar. Inevitably, a split develops between the old timers -- the ones who learned the language, married local, or are dead-set against leaving -- and the short-timers, who talk over sake about the Japanese idiosyncrasies they are just discovering. These are the same discussions the older expats once had, though they are unlikely now to admit it. A modest superiority builds among the old-timers, like the way Floridians thumb their noses at pasty northern coming south for winter sun.

For some in this crowd, leaving Tokyo after the quake was treasonous. They fume on websites, calling foreigners who left "flyjins" -- a pun from the Japanese word, gaijins, for foreigner. They claim those who fled inaccurately judged the limited impact of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear mishap. And they have a point.

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